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Module I - History of yoga

The origins of yoga are a matter of debate.  There is no consensus on its chronology or specific origin other than that yoga developed in ancient India.

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Statue of Shiva in Bangalore, Karnataka, India, performing yogic meditation in the Padmasana posture, or the lotus position


Pre-Vedic period: 8,000-10,000 years ago

Yoga flourished and was developed as a part of the Tantric civilisation in India and in all parts of the world.

From the ruins of the two major cities in civilisation, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, statutes were found which show Lord Shiva and Parvati in different asanas and also doing meditation together.

Lord Shiva is the founder of yoga and his first disciple was Parvati.  The knowledge of yoga was passed on to Parvati by word of mouth.  Lord Shiva narrated this knowledge to Parvati.  The techniques of yoga have their source in the ancient system of Tantra.  Tantra is a combination of two words, “tanoti” which means expansion and “trayti” which means liberation.  Tantra is the science of expanding the consciousness and liberating the energy.

Vedic period: 1500-500 BC

The term “yoga,” however, is found in ancient India’s earliest known scripts – the Vedas.  They date from the Vedic period, which began in 1500 BC.  Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the Vedas are the oldest writings of Hinduism and Sanskrit literature.

Vedas were written at the time when the Indus valley culture was flourishing in the continent.  These books were written only in symbolic manner and had no techniques written in them.  The verses in the Vedas were heard by Rishi’s (seer).  “Veda” means wisdom, knowledge or vision, and it manifests the language of the gods in human speech.  The laws of the Vedas regulate the social, legal, domestic and religious customs of the Hindus to the present day.  The Vedas are four: The Rig-Veda, the Sama Veda, the Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda; the Rig Veda being the main.

White notes in his paper that the term “yoga” in the Vedas actually refers to a yoke, as in the yoke over animals – and at times a chariot in the midst of battle. Interestingly, in some of these very early writings, yoga was used to describe a warrior dying and transcending into heaven, being carried by his chariot to reach the gods and higher powers of being.

During the Vedic period, Vedic priests who were ascetic – severely self-disciplined and avoidant of any forms of indulgence – conducted sacrifices, or yajna, in poses that some researchers believe are precursors to the yoga poses, or asanas.

2500-1000 BC

The Upanishads were compiled and they became the source of yogic knowledge in a more precisely written form.  “Yoga” was mentioned for the first time, as “union” – yuj.  Techniques mentioned in Upanishads were Japa: technique of repeating a sacred sound or chanting a mantra; Mouna: silence.

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A yogi seated in a garden, North Indian or Deccani miniature painting, c.1620-40  Wikimedia

500-400 BC

Sage Patanjali compiled a text in Sanskrit, “Patanjali Yoga Sutras” with a total of 196 verses, which give complete knowledge about the attainment of the royal path of yoga, Raja Yoga.  To complete the path of Raja Yoga, sage Patanjali mentioned an eightfold path which is also known as Ashtanga Yoga or Patanjali Yoga.  These eight limbs are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dyhana and Samadhi.

At around the same time, another sage Swami Swatmarama compiled another text in Sanskrit called “Hatha Yoga Pradipika” or “Light on Yoga”.  Swami Swatmarama omitted certain techniques and relatively introduced three aspects of practice to be followed – Asana, Pranayama and Shatkriyas.

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Patanjali: At times referred to as the "father of yoga," Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras

3rd century BC

In the 3rd century BC, references to the term “yoga” became more common in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist writings.  In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the notion of yoga as a spiritual or meditative practice as we know now was referred to as Yogachara (Yogācāra).  Yogachara involved eight steps of meditation that was known as “calmness” or “insight.”




5th century AD

For a while, yoga was a loose notion, its meaning difficult to pin down.  It was more of a notion of meditation and a religious practice.  Around the 5th century, it became more of an established core idea among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains.  First and foremost, these ancient versions of yoga were mostly spiritual practices, revolving around several core values.

The first value involved analysing one’s own perception and cognitive state, understanding the root of suffering and using meditation to solve it.  The mind was to “transcend” bodily pain or suffering in order to reach a higher level of being.  The second aimed to uplift or broaden consciousness; and the third involved using yoga as a path to transcendence.  The fourth was using yoga to enter other bodies and act supernaturally – perhaps the strangest and most mystical one.

This is also where the difference between “yogi practice” and “yoga practice” is differentiated.

Yoga practice, as described by Professor David Gordon White[1], “essentially denotes a program of mind-training and meditation issuing in the realisation of enlightenment, liberation, or isolation from the world of suffering existence,” at least in ancient terms.

Yogi practice, meanwhile, lies more in the supernatural ie when yogis are able to enter other bodies to expand their consciousness.


[1] Yoga, Brief History of an Idea: David Gordon White, Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara


500-1500 AD

During the medieval era, different schools of yoga emerged.  


Bhakti yoga is a spiritual pathway within Hinduism that appeared during this time, a type of yoga that focused on living through love and devotion toward God.

Tantra was also a genre that arrived around the 5th century, exhibited in medieval Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu traditions.  White notes that the Tantras, the medieval scriptures that discussed a new yoga ideology, outlined new goals for those practising yoga: “No longer is the practitioner’s ultimate goal liberation from suffering existence, but rather self-deification: one becomes the deity that has been one’s object of meditation.”

Westerners today have often associated “tantra” with a sexual form of yoga, but it turns out they weren’t too far off.  Some Tantric beliefs involved yogis having sexual relations with low-caste women whom they believed were yoginis, or women who embodied Tantric goddesses.  Having sex with them could lead these yogis to a transcendent level of consciousness.  [Today, gurus who go about doing such things in their yoga or Bikram classes aren’t exactly known for their moral or spiritual prowess.]

Hatha yoga appeared in Buddhist texts around the 8th century, and it emerged from tantra.  It is known as the common “psychophysical yoga,” a combination of bodily postures, breathing, and meditation – possibly the closest to what we today associate with yoga.  The postures in hatha yoga are called asanas.



For thousands of years, the term “yoga” encompassed many things, most of them religious and/or spiritual.  But in the mid-19th century, yoga came to the attention of Westerners, who at the time seemed intrigued by Indian culture.  

The popularity of yoga in the West may be attributed to Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk who toured Europe and the US in the 1890s to spread knowledge about Hinduism among intellectuals. 

Vivekananda was responsible for bringing the Yoga Sutras more into the light, as well.  These were writings of Patanjali, comprised sometime around 400 AD to describe what he believed were the main yoga traditions of his time.  The Yoga Sutras focused mainly on removing all excess thought from the mind and focusing on a singular thing; but they were later incorporated more heavily than any other ancient yoga writings in modern, “corporate” yoga.


20th century

Yoga masters began to travel to the west (all over the world, in fact) in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  By the 1920s T Krishnamacharya demonstrated Hatha Yoga throughout India and opened the first school to teach the practice.  Three of his students significantly spread global yoga, in particular BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois.

In 1947 Indra Devi opened a yoga study in Hollywood which was the beginning of the spread and popularisation of Hatha Yoga in the United States.  The practice became wildly popular during the counterculture movement of the 1960s with the so-called "hippies" embracing many aspects of Eastern teaching and philosophy as they sought to distance themselves from the "establishment" and the traditional American values they so actively rejected.

Hatha yoga as a practice did not become a commonplace exercise in the US until the 1930s and 40s, and finally reached a peak in the 60s, when Hindu spirituality became far more popular among young Americans.  Numerous Indian teachers of yoga taught classes in the US, and in the 1980s, it became even more popular due to the first health benefits being reported.  This was the first time yoga was seen as a practice with purely physical benefits, something that can improve heart health and fitness, rather than bringing a place of transcendence.


21st century

The popularity of yoga in the US has increased throughout the decades, rising from 4 million in 2001 to 36.7 million in 2016 [2] (of a population of 322.7 million).  It was estimated that two billion people [3] around the world practise yoga.

Plenty of scientific studies have found that yoga comes with a flurry of health benefits: It reduces high blood pressure, depression, chronic pain, and anxiety. It also improves cardiac function, muscle strength, and circulation.


[2] Yoga in American Study: Conducted by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, 13 January 2016

[3] News & Media, United Nations Radio, 21 June 2016

December 2014

The United Nations General Assembly marked 21 June International Yoga Day, an annual celebration to incorporate yoga and meditation more into humanity all over the world.  As the Dalai Lama notes, “If every 8-year-old in the world is taught meditation, we will eliminate violence from the world within one generation.”


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